Adoption Pains

Why does the system make it so hard to give an orphan a home?

(Page 2 of 4)

Two days later, we had our first hearing in Brooklyn's Kings County Family Court. We were asking the judge to make us Francine's guardians or, failing that, award us temporary custody, so we could take her out of the hospital. Unfortunately, the judge who had awarded temporary guardianship to Evelyn, Stephen Bogacz, was on vacation, and instead we got Judge Paula Hepner, who was inexplicably hostile and suspicious. She insisted that we could not possibly have obtained a home study and background clearances so quickly. Our lawyer, Ben Rosin, assured her that we had requested the home study in early August, with Francine in mind.

Hepner was accusing us of lying, but I couldn't imagine what she thought our motive was. Did she think that Michele had enrolled in rabbinical school so she could work as a chaplain in a hospital where she might find an orphan to adopt? Perhaps this strategy deserves a separate chapter in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Adoption, between "What You Should Know About Birthmothers" and "Playing the Waiting Game." In any event, there is nothing improper about commissioning a home study before you find a child. "Ideally," advises Colleen Alexander-Roberts in The Legal Adoption Guide, "the prospective parents have a home study completed before they locate a baby to adopt." Should this not be possible, however, a home study "can usually be accomplished quickly." Tell it to the judge.

Whatever it was that set Hepner off, it was quickly apparent that she had no intention of letting us take Francine home. She said the JCCA home study was not good enough, that we also needed one from ACS (which had advised us that we needed a private home study). She appointed an attorney named Philip Skittone as Francine's "law guardian," yet another person who was supposed to look after her interests, to evaluate the case and make a recommendation at a hearing three and a half weeks later.

The next day I called Everett Wattley at ACS to find out what happened to Stephen Francois' home study. Wattley promised he would fax the report over to the courthouse in Brooklyn in time for the next hearing.

We arrived for our second family court hearing at 2 p.m. on Friday, September 27, and discovered that Judge Bogacz had never received the ACS report. The ACS's courthouse liaison said the only record the agency had of any report connected with Francine's case had to do with Bogacz's order for an investigation of Evelyn, back when she was petitioning the court to become Francine's guardian. ACS had just received that (now obsolete) order, which Bogacz had issued three months before. The liaison said Wattley had told him there never was a report on Michele and me. I told Ben, our lawyer, that I had spoken to Wattley repeatedly about the report, and there was no way that there could have been a misunderstanding. Ben called Wattley, who suddenly remembered talking to me but still insisted that there was no report. Finally, we got Francois, the ACS caseworker, to scrawl out a couple of pages and fax them to the courthouse.

Skittone, Francine's law guardian, showed up two and a half hours late. I overheard him telling Evelyn's lawyer and the hospital's lawyer that he was not ready to make any recommendation regarding custody, because he didn't have enough information. It had been nearly a month since the last hearing, and all Skittone had done was talk to a social worker at the hospital on the telephone. He hadn't talked to Michele or me; he hadn't talked to Evelyn; he hadn't talked to anyone at the hospital who had treated or cared for Francine; he hadn't visited the hospital or met Francine. No wonder he didn't have enough information.

When we went into the courtroom, Skittone reiterated his firm position that he was not prepared to take a position. He asked for permission to hire a social worker, at the taxpayers' expense, to help him with the case. Judge Bogacz asked why he needed a social worker. Skittone said a social worker could interview "the child" and other people involved in the case. "Can't you do that?" Bogacz asked. "Yes," Skittone replied, "but I'm not a social worker." Perhaps sensing that his argument needed a little reinforcement, he said the case was "very unique," involving a child "who is different from every other child." He claimed the case was complex and contentious. "No, it isn't," I muttered, and Ben sternly hushed me. The lawyers are supposed to do the talking.

Ben noted that we had background clearances, plus a "glowing report" from the JCCA. Evelyn wanted us to have custody of Francine, and so did the hospital's social worker. He added that Francine had already been in the hospital longer than necessary (her original discharge date had been in mid-August). When it became clear that Bogacz was inclined to grant us temporary custody, the supposedly noncommittal Skittone started arguing against us. It could be confusing for Francine if she went home with us, he said, and then something came up (exactly what he had in mind wasn't clear) that disqualified us as parents. Observing that it could also be confusing for Francine if she had to stay in the hospital, Bogacz gave us temporary custody. Throwing Skittone a bone, he agreed to let him hire a social worker. He also noted that the ACS report seemed a bit sketchy--not surprising, since it had been dashed off a couple of hours before--and ordered a more complete one for the next hearing, which he scheduled for December 2.

So Francine finally came home with us at the end of September 1996. We worried that she would have trouble adjusting, but she turned out to be remarkably resilient. "Cheer up, Francine," we used to say as she walked down the hall, smiling broadly and belting out a mangled song she had halfway learned from a CD.

From time to time, Francine would talk matter-of-factly about her "old Mommy," who "got dead." Once she was walking down Broadway with Michele when she saw the exhaust from a truck and said softly, "I don't like smoke." When Michele asked her why, she said there was a lot of smoke the night her mother died; she remembered seeing Elayna running toward her, then falling down. Michele asked her what happened next. "Look!" Francine replied. "The light changed red!" After a while, it occurred to us that when you're 3 years old you have no idea how life is supposed to be. So far as Francine knew, every little girl lives first with one mother, then with another, and in between stays in a hospital where she's tied to a wheelchair.

About a month after we took Francine out of the hospital, we got a call from Leslie Cummins, the social worker hired by Skittone. We arranged to meet with the two of them at his office in Brooklyn. Skittone's handshake was clammy and flaccid; he talked to Francine in a squeaky voice, mispronouncing words on purpose. ("Would you like a pwesent?") He said he used to be an elementary school teacher; we figured his students must have hid the blackboard eraser and made faces behind his back.

While Francine drew pictures, Cummins asked us how she was doing, whether she talked about her mother, how we were getting along with Evelyn, how we handled discipline, what Francine's schedule was like. In contrast to Skittone, with his patronizing smile and gratingly cheerful demeanor, she seemed competent and genuinely nice. Skittone kept interrupting our responses to her questions with questions of his own. We left after an hour and a half, with Skittone declaring us "uniquely well qualified" as parents. He said he hoped we knew that he was just doing his job; he didn't understand why our lawyer seemed so belligerent. I shrugged and kept my mouth shut.

Two weeks later, Cummins visited our apartment for a couple of hours and asked us some more questions. We still hadn't heard from ACS, which was supposed to send another caseworker over for the home study Judge Bogacz had ordered. With a week to go before the next hearing, I called Ben to find out what was going on. He said he'd had a heated conversation with Wattley about the report, then called the judge's office and asked them to issue another order. The next day, we heard from Miguel Nunez, another ACS caseworker.

On Wednesday, November 27, Nunez came by and chatted with us for about half an hour. He was very cordial, talking about his own son, a 5-year-old, and the challenges of parenthood. He asked about Francine's medical condition, whether she talked about her mother, how she was adjusting, how our lives had changed since she came to live with us. He walked around the apartment. Nunez said he wasn't sure what the judge was looking for, since someone from ACS had already done a home study. We noted that Francois' report had been written at the last minute. Maybe the judge would prefer a report that was typed, I suggested jokingly. Nunez said handwritten ACS reports were not at all unusual. The agency's budget was tight, and they couldn't afford enough typists. Plus, the job is very depressing, what with all the abused children. "Working for the city is a joke," he said.

When we arrived for the next hearing, on Monday, December 2, everything seemed to be in order. Evelyn had agreed to transfer the guardianship to us. The ACS report was there. Ben gave us copies of the reports from Skittone and Cummins, which were very favorable. The rows of long wooden benches were full, so we read the reports while sitting on the linoleum floor in the waiting room, our backs against the wall. The session was scheduled to end at 1 p.m., and Skittone did not show up until 12:30. On the way to the courtroom he was buttonholed by Beverly Smith, Judge Bogacz's law secretary.

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